Plays the NFL should pinch from College Football
Part I: The Lincoln Riley Special. Combing college football for the concepts and designs pro teams should lift.
Football is a bottom-up structure. The inverted pyramid of pressure allows guys at the high school level to innovate, college guys to evolve, then the pro guys to steal, often laying claim to creation in grand, sweeping media profiles of their genius. That’s the game.
NFL coaching staffs comb through film wherever they can find it (the SEC, PAC-12, high school, Japan) to find creative designs that can help on Sundays — the Chiefs under Andy Reid, for instance, dedicate one member of staff to trawl through high school, international tape, and social media to find the whackiest and most imaginative designs.
One of the joys of the pre-draft process for those of us no longer writing about college football on the daily is being able to dive deep into the schemes, systems, and individual designs that are new or interesting at the college level. Over the coming weeks, we’re going to dig into some of the most compelling designs from college football that pro teams can pinch and install for the upcoming season. We’re starting on the offensive side of the ball. And we’re starting with a Lincoln Riley special.
The Drag Screen
Lincoln Riley is the high priest of offensive football. His offenses, from ECU to Oklahoma to USC, have been a marvel. He balances 12 personnel and heavy-based pistol actions with vintage 2x2 open sets. It’s a confuse-and-clobber buffet, one chock full of RPO goodness. Where Riley is at his best is building in tendency breakers: He will beat one drum to push the defense to restructure itself before he dials up the ideal pay-off play, often on deep play-action strikes. Few sequence things better.
There are times when it borders on football pornography. If every staff in the land (and every football viewer) is not studying every morsel of Riley Ball, and pinching the best they can find, they’re doing themselves a disservice. Some college coaches become #brands while running the tried-and-true staples *cough* Kliff Kingsbury *cough*. Riley lives up to the hype.
One Riley hallmark: the drag screen. It unfurls like a rudimentary ‘mesh’ concept, but rather than looking to conflict a middle-of-the-field defender and create a natural ‘rub/pick’ it is designed to create downfield blocking, to get a receiver catching the ball on-the-move with blocking downfield:
The key is the timing between the quarterback, receiver, and his blockers out in front. The ball must be out before the blocker can engage. Riley has solved that riddle, in part, by releasing his back out of the backfield to act as the screener for a receiver driving underneath:
The art of the design is that it leverages the fear of ‘mesh’ into springing wider voids in the secondary. As the ‘mesh’ concept begins to appear, at least in the eyes of defenders, the middle of the defense is conflicted: do they hand off the receivers? Do they work through the wash?
Mesh is designed to have two defenders crash into each other like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake. To battle that, defenders can either exchange assignments, navigate through the maze, or slow their feet to work through the malaise before re-hitting the accelerator.
As a counter to mesh, that works. But what if the offense is like a goddamn cobra, lying in wait for you to slow those feet so that they can engage in a screen and wall you off?
Mesh is the go-to play for every offense at every level of the game these days. Finding an extra layer to the base concept is where imaginative coaches shine — they know defenses are sitting in wait for the ho-hum design. There are all manner of ways to work off the initial threat: tagging it with an RPO, building in a burst route (showing the initial mesh action before one of the receivers jets upstream), and on and on the options rolls. But Riley’s go-to solution is the ideal prompt to sow uncertainty into the heads of defenders. It isn’t a one-off shot, looking to use the threat of the action to hit a chunk downfield. It breeds an every-down fear. Is this mesh? Is it the burst? Is it an RPO? Is it the screen? It’s that one! Holy hell, it’s the other one!
Riley is not done there. There’s an extra act of subtle cruelty, a final tag: The quarterback run.
Riley’s drag screen ostensibly functions as a quarterback draw RPO:
The movement of the receivers helps clear out half of a field. It pulls the eyes of defenders away from the quarterback. Riley roasted teams back at Oklahoma with Kyler Murray and then Jalen Hurts by majoring in a drag screen that gave the quarterbacks free license to take off whenever they saw space:
How do you process that as a defense? It’s an impossible bind. Slow play things, and a receiver can steal a step slicing across the formation on the screen. React quickly, bite on the screen, and the quarterback can fly into the open void. Drop an extra man out, guess wrong, and the quarterback is free to sit back and complete a simple crosser on the most rudimentary concept in any playbook.
Turning mesh into a multi-faceted design that puts defenses in a blender is legitimate warlock stuff. Have we checked that Riley is of this world?
GT-Counter RPO Double Screen
Part of USC’s excellence under Lincoln Riley is their ability to be structurally sound blocking on the move. So much of the Riley ethos revolves around RPO and play-action shots off pulling linemen – often multiple linemen. At the college level, that’s heady stuff. Getting players (and concepts) to remain sound while pulling and moving is tricky. The set points are different; they can be obscured by the movement of the defensive line or any sort of pressure from the second-level.
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